When You Pray
When You Pray
St. Luke 11:1-13
Every Christian can attest to how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus. Some Christians have been forced to give their lives for Jesus. As Christians our most basic creed is that Jesus is Lord. That was a threat to the Roman Caesars in the early centuries of the church and many of our brothers and sisters were martyred rather than give up on Jesus by declaring that Caesar is lord. Many of our brothers and sisters, today in places like Sudan or in Iraq, are facing the same sort of choice. I hesitate to compare our difficulties with martyrdom, but the fact is that even if our commitment to Jesus isn’t challenged by the prospect of martyrdom, it’s still challenged by the day-to-day realities of life. We’re challenged to compromise in a hundred ways each day and week: Do we trust in people or do we trust in God? Do we trust in money and material possessions or do we trust in God? Do we trust Caesar for our provision and our safety or do we trust God? Do we look to gratify our desires or to meet our needs through sinful means or do we trust God to meet them? Do we live in fear or anxiety or paranoia or do we continue to trust that Jesus is Lord and that God is sovereign over his Creation?
Last week we read Luke’s story that contrasts Martha and her sister, Mary. Jesus came to their home. Martha was running around, worryied and anxious because she was trying to meet worldly standards of hospitality. She missed that the sort of hospitality Jesus is really looking for in his people is a form of discipleship that allows him to lead us and to teach us. In contrast, there was Mary, quietly sitting at Jesus’ feet, soaking up his presence and his wisdom—learning how to follow him and learning how to live in and manifest his upside-down kingdom.
It’s easy to respond like Martha. It’s hard to respond to Jesus like Mary. Having said that, though, it’s a lot easier to sit quietly at Jesus feet and to be a devoted disciple when Jesus is right there, sitting in your living room. I expect that once Jesus was gone, Mary struggled with the same sorts of things we do. That’s why she understood how important it was to take advantage of learning from Jesus while he was there. It’s easy—usually—to be a disciple in church. It’s a challenge when we’re at home and get into a fight with our husband or wife. It’s a challenge when a neighbour does us some wrong. It’s a challenge when we sit down later in the week to balance the chequebook and there isn’t enough money left for the things we need. It’s a challenge when we’re faced with illness, chronic pain, or when we’re just facing the difficulties of age and knowing that things are only going to get worse. It’s easy to respond with anger, with fear, with paranoia, with desperation. It’s easy to lose the peace and to lose the hope that came so easily when Jesus was right there with us. But, brothers and sisters, part of what Jesus wanted Mary to learn while he was sitting there in her house is that he and his Father are with us even when we can’t see them. Jesus gives us reason to hope and he give us reason to keep on hoping even when it’s a challenge. Even if he’s not sitting in the chair in the corner of the living room or even if we’re not present with him at his Table, he is with us all the time and we should never be afraid to keep living out and manifesting to the world his upside-down kingdom. That’s what St. Luke gets at in our lesson today.
Look at Luke 11:1.
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Somewhere along the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem the disciples saw Jesus praying and they asked him how to pray. It’s not that they didn’t know how to pray. It may have been that they saw the peace that prayer brought to Jesus and wanted to share in it, but their appeal to him to teach them to pray the way John taught his disciple to pray points to their understanding that prayer shapes community. As Jews, they were steeped in the tradition of liturgical prayer. The prayers they prayed both in the synagogue and the prayers they prayed daily with their families shaped their understanding of God and his kingdom and those prayers built a community identity. Prayer does the same thing today. Christians have unique prayers that our communities identify with. If you want to smoke out the Roman Catholics in a gathering, just start praying the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace” and see who joins in. Likewise, you can smoke all of Anglicans out praying “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open” or “We do not presume to come”. On the first day of class when I was in seminary, one of my professors got our attention for an opening prayer with the words, “The Lord be with you.” You could tell the students from liturgical traditions because they responded. You could tell everyone else because they just looked confused. And then you could tell the Prayer Book Anglicans because we responded, “And with thy spirit.” One guy two rows ahead of me and a few seats over heard me and I heard him. He looked back and we smiled and nodded at each other. Even in a mixed group, our prayer let us know that we were brothers from the same community.
We don’t know what sort of prayer John taught his disciples, but it shaped their identity and now Jesus’ disciples ask him for something that will gather them around a common understanding of God and his kingdom. What Jesus teaches them is remarkably similar to the Jewish liturgical prayers known as the Qaddish and the Eighteen Benedictions. But what ought to stand out in both the prayer Jesus gives them and in the commentary he adds afterward is that this is the sort of kingdom thinking that will turn us from worried and anxious Marthas into peaceful and hopeful Marys. Look now at verses 2-4 and notice that this isn’t just a “gimme, gimme” sort of prayer. It’s a prayer that first acknowledges who God is and it’s a prayer in which the petitions are actually expressions of faith in God’s kingdom. It’s a doctrinal prayer. We can’t pray it without it reshaping our understanding of God and his kingdom.
And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
As Jesus’ disciples the first thing he tells us is that when we pray, we approach the Father—his Father and because of that our Father. The Jews new God as Father, but Jesus draws us closer. When the Jews addressed God as Father they used a much more formal form of the word: abinu. From what we read elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus addressed God as abba and that’s what he’s getting at here. Most of you have probably heard abba before. It’s an Aramaic word that a son uses to address his Father. It’s an intimate and a personal form of address. Jesus reminds us that we don’t just call out in prayer to some remote or impersonal Creator or even to some “Great Father” we don’t know. No. In prayer we draw near to a Father who knows us, who loves us, and who has promised to care for us. We draw near to a Father who sent his own Son to die so that we can be reconciled to him. We can draw near to the Father the same way Mary drew near to Jesus.
Now notice the first petition. Again, this isn’t a “gimme, gimme” prayer. The first petition is a request that God’s name be hallowed or sanctified. And this has more than one level of meaning. First, it acknowledges that the Father to whom we pray is holy. We may be able to draw near and we may be able to know him in a close and personal way, but he is still the almighty Creator of the cosmos. He is still the great and holy Judge. This ought to drive home to us just how amazing it is that we can come to him as “Father”. Second, to pray that God’s name be hallowed is to affirm our faith in the God of the Old Testament who promised to manifest his holiness and to vindicate his people. Through Ezekiel he had promised: “I will vindicate the holiness of my great name…And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (Ezekiel 36:23). This had been the hope of Israel ever since and it’s the very thing that Jesus has come to do. Jesus has come to hallow, to sanctify, to vindicate the great name of the Lord—to show his righteousness by faithfully fulfilling the promises he had made all the way back to David, to Moses, to Abraham, and even to Adam. To pray “hallowed be your name” is for us acknowledge that God is faithful and that in Jesus he has vindicated his people. And that brings us to the third point this petition makes. God promised to manifest his holiness by vindicating his people and he promised to do that by making them holy. In that same passage from Ezekiel 36 the Lord promises: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses…I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). It was necessary for God to vindicate or to sanctify his name because his people had dragged it through the mud, they’d profaned it through their sin and their idolatry. That’s the other side of Ezekiel’s prophecy. And so for God to sanctify his name was for him to come to redeem his people and to make them holy once again. When we pray the prayer Jesus has given us we express our faith in Jesus as the one who has come to once again sanctify God’s name and we express a desire to see that sanctity, that holiness in our own lives as Jesus transforms us from the inside out.
The second petition: When we pray “hallow be your name” we express our faith that in Jesus God has come to vindicate his people and we express our faith that in him God’s kingdom rule has been inaugurated. The petition “your kingdom come” follows that. If Jesus has inaugurated God’s kingdom we then pray for its consummation. Our King has sent us out into the world with the Good News that he is Lord and we await the day when his rule will be manifested everywhere in the earth. St. Matthew gives a longer version of this prayer and the expansion he gives there is helpful: “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Heaven is the place where God’s kingdom awaits that Last Day when it breaks forth in final triumphant victory at Jesus’ return. Heaven is the place where the saints find their rest after death as we wait for that great day, but heaven isn’t our hope and heaven isn’t the “kingdom”. I appreciate the illustration that Tom Wright has used in many variations. God’s kingdom is something like a cake. Imagine I invite you to my house for a party and tell you that there’s a cake in the refrigerator. We don’t squeeze ourselves into the refrigerator to have a party and to enjoy the cake. No. We take the cake out and bring it to the table. Heaven is a bit like the refrigerator. It’s the place where the cake and the party are stored away by God until the time when he’s ready to bring it all out to celebrate with us. Jesus’ disciples would have understood this as imperial language. When a new Caesar took the throne in Rome, messengers were sent throughout the empire with the good news of his rule and the great hope of Roman colonists was that one day Caesar would come to visit them, to grace them with his royal presence and to manifest his imperium in their city or, if they lived in land in rebellion, that Caesar would come and defeat the rebels and re-establish his imperium. And so for us to pray “your kingdom come” is, on the one hand, to look forward in faith to the day when Jesus returns in glory to finally establish his kingdom, but on the other hand, it’s also a petition that our Father make us faithful ambassadors of his kingdom until that day. It’s a prayer that acknowledges our duty as Jesus’ disciples to manifest his kingdom in practical ways. Just as he sent the seventy out to prepare the way before him, preaching good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and release to the captives. So he sends us into the world to do the same that people might be prepared when he returns. That’s what these first two petitions are about.
The first half of the prayer set our priorities. It’s about discipleship. It’s about following where Jesus leads so that we can manifest his kingdom and hallow his name. It’s a prayer, again, that sends us out to prepare the way for his coming. Now, if that’s our priority, who takes care of our bread for today and for tomorrow? That’s what the third petition is about: “Give us each day our daily bread”. Jesus sent his disciples out and told them to take nothing, but to rely on the Lord’s provision. He isn’t nearly so extreme with us, but he does call on us to trust in our heavenly Father. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to work. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take thought for where our food or our clothing or the roof over our head is going to come from. What it does mean is that when we’re tempted to be worried and anxious like Martha and when that worry and anxiety would draw us away from following Jesus and being faithful disciples, we need to remember that our Father will provide. It’s a reminder never to compromise the kingdom for the sake of material concerns. Be honest in your work, even if it might endanger your job. Be generous with your possessions, with your money, and with your food, even if you’re afraid of being left with too little or of being taken advantage of. In the face of persecution and even in the face of martyrdom be willing to be thrown to the lions knowing that your Father has given you an eternal hope far greater than anything you might be called to give up today. Brothers and sisters, that’s the kind of faith that hallows God’s name and manifests his kingdom.
Fourth, we ask our Father to “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” As God has forgiven us, we need to forgive others. In other words, we need to model God’s grace in our dealings with others. Again, it’s about manifesting God’s kingdom. It’s about preparing the world around us for the coming of our Lord. Remember that the whole society of that time was built on a system of clientage and patronage. Everyone owed something to everyone else and no one gave anything away for free. That God would freely give his Son was radical. Talk about turning things upside-down and inside-out. And yet Jesus calls us as we pray to ask not only for God’s forgiveness but to ask for the grace to go against the grain of the world in our dealings with others. There’s no room for grudges, for bitterness, or for jealousy in God’s kingdom. When we forgive as God has forgiven we make his kingdom known.
Finally, as disciples who have been guaranteed persecution for living out Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, we ask to be spared from “temptation”. A better translation would be “testing”. In Luke’s Gospel and in Acts testing is always a bad thing. Usually it’s associated with opposition to our mission and ministry and so Jesus tells us to pray that we might be spared. Ultimately, in making this petition, what we’re doing is acknowledging our own weak faith and need for God’s grace and care in our lives: “Father, Spare us from testing lest we fail, but regardless of our situation, keep us in your divine care.” We remember that he is the source of our faith as much as he is the source of the bread we eat each day and the forgiveness we need each hour.
Let me conclude with Jesus’ follow-up to the prayer he taught the disciples. In the prayer he teaches us what to pray. In the two parables that follow he encourages us to pray by reminded us who it is we’re praying to and what he’s like. This isn’t a formula or a “technology” of prayer. Some people have read it that way—that it’s about persistence, for example. But that misses the point. Jesus is telling us who the Father is and what he’s like and why we can pray to him in confidence. Look at verses 5-10:
And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
Jesus paints a picture that his disciple would have recognised. This is a little village. The people lived in small, one-room houses. At night any furniture the family might have had was moved aside and a mat or mattress would be laid out on the floor for the whole family. He also reminds the disciples of the importance of hospitality in their culture. If a friend turned up at your door, you were obligated to feed and shelter him. No one would have questioned that. But this man has no bread—nothing for his guest to eat. And so he goes to his friend, even though is friend is already in bed with his family. He knocks at the door and asks for help feeding his guest. Jesus point isn’t that the friend disturbs his family to get up and give bread to the man in need because the man is persistent in his knocking at the door. Jesus’ point is that the friend will provide the needed bread without question, simply because it’s what you do for a friend or, at worst, because refusing would bring dishonour on him. This man goes in confidence to his friend, even though it’s late at night and even though it means inconvenience, because he knows that his friend will give him the bread he needs. And Jesus tells us this to encourage us in our own prayers. As this man knew his friend would meet his need, so we can know that the Father will meet ours. Jesus says: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” This isn’t a formula meant to tell us that we have to wear God down by asking, seeking, and knocking. It’s just the opposite. First, don’t be afraid to pray. Your Father is ready to listen just as this man’s friend was ready to give him bread, even in the middle of the night. Second, ask and your Father will answer. You don’t have to beat his door down. He knows you’re there, he knows what you need, and he hears your request. Again, he’s not some distant “Great Father”. He’s abba. He’s our Father who knows us and loves us and who sent his own Son to die for us.
Jesus gets at this in the second parable. Look finally at verses 11-13:
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Jesus appeals to the love we have for our children. As sinful as we are and as much as we might occasionally tease our children, none of us will give our children malicious “gifts”. No one’s going to give a hungry child a poisonous snake or try to feed his hungry baby a scorpion. We all understand the love of earthly fathers for their children and Jesus appeals to that love. If sinful earthly fathers give good gifts to their children, how much more can we expect our heavenly Father to give the best of gifts to us? When we are so ready to answer the requests of our children for help, our heavenly Father is even more ready to answer ours. Jesus urges us to pray with confidence. He urges us to put our needs into God’s hands, not insisting on this or that outcome, but trusting that our Father will meet our needs as he knows best.
In his closing words Jesus brings this all full-circle—back to the promise of the Father in Ezekiel. He says, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you.” What is it that makes kingdom people kingdom people? What is it that allows us to set aside worry and anxiety and to sit at Jesus’ feet while the storm rages all around? What is it that allows us to forgive even in the face of pure hate? What is it that allows us to trust in God even as we’re thrown to the lions? What is it that allows us—that causes us—to manifest God’s kingdom, that drives us to prepare the way for the Lord’s return even as we face the crushing opposition of the world, the flesh, and the devil? Brothers and sisters, it’s a change of heart—from stone to flesh. That’s the single greatest thing we need. And our Father accomplished that in us as he gives us the Holy Spirit. Ultimately the Spirit is the answer to every one of our prayers. He is the solution to every one of our troubles and trials. His presence in us is what unites us to Jesus. His presence in us is the reason we continue to walk as disciple in peace and in grace. Remember that this morning. Let Jesus fill you again at his Table and then remember that he goes with you in the power of the Spirit. Remember this as you go out in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Let us pray: We thank you Father that we can come to you in confidence. As we come in confidence, remind us who we are as kingdom people. Let us live in hope knowing that you are holy and sovereign. Let us live in hope knowing that you will provide for every need, physical and spiritual. Let us live I hope, full of your Spirit. And as we live in hope, let be faithful witnesses of your kingdom that the world might be prepared when your Son returns. We ask this through him who is our Lord. Amen.